credit: Desmond Smith

The Beauty of Agnosticism


Don’t call it faith if you have all the answers. — Dr. Brené Brown

At the core of what it means to be agnostic with respect to faith is a stance that no one knows whether any sort of deity exists. Many would say that not only is it unknown, but it is ultimately unknowable ­­— humans don't have the capacities or abilities needed to answer that question. Exactly how or why it may be unknowable varies depending on the particular flavor of agnosticism. In any case, it is a question that cannot be answered right now. Maybe someday it will. As of today, though, either there is nothing beyond this life or any god that might exist is too great for us to comprehend.

I often wonder if I'm trending towards one type of agnosticism. I wonder if it's true that everyone who is pursuing God in any meaningful way is leaning in that direction. The more I try to learn — the more I think I understand — the thought that there is infinitely more to know becomes more and more evident to me.

Faith, in itself, is acknowledging that we merely believe something to be fact. While we might want it to be true. it’s something that cannot be known — at least not a hard fact kind of knowing. This is the part of living a life of faith that's kept in a dark corner and rarely spoken of. We portray the unknowing as doubt and turn up our noses at it. Our tribal communities of faith prescribe for us the correct ways to see the world and how to act in it. Deviating from this prescription has some sort of consquences. We may or may not be damned if we believe, and may or may not be damned if we don't.

For the person living with any kind of faith, things get dicey when we forget the assumptions that are inherent in believing. Believing will not and cannot be equated with knowing. Sensing? Yes. Feeling? Sure. Experiencing? Absolutely. Verifying? Not a chance.

Yet we (I'm speaking for Christians here — and making a relatively large sweeping generalization) voraciously pursue ways to corroborate and prove what we believe to be true. We spend so much time and money on books and videos and commentaries in an effort to find a credible voice to endorse what we purport to have figured out. We talk (polite version)/bicker (reality) about the most important (again, polite)/irrelevant (yup) topics since faith clearly is another area in which we need to out-do the Joneses: “My doctrine of baptism is verified more often in scripture than your doctrine of baptism.”

It's futile, frustrating, and clearly fragmenting. The discomfort of lacking certainty leads us to align with others that share our views and discredit those who think differently.

The rational truth is we can't know a lot of what we think we can know. We're separated by time, space, language, interpretation, and subjectivity from whatever truth there may be.

This is where I find the most beauty in agnosticism.

For the agnostic, the inability to know is a core component of his view on the world. He is confident that he is unable to know the mysteries of the supernatural realm — there is a humility that undergirds this belief. In contrast, the compulsion to find truth and ultimate answers that I see from so many people of faith comes from a place of implicit pride or even fear. The pride says that we can fully know how God operates, removing the mystery and awe that lead to worship; the fear says that trusting God to be gracious is too difficult and that we must earn our way into his good books.

Christians, still (and at least in the western world), have not come to terms with our inability to know anything about God with any certainty. We look for the concrete to satisfy our selfish questions in a world where none exists. Selfish, you say? Of course. At the core of these questions is the issue of heaven and hell, and where I and the people I care most about in the world will end up at the end of time.

I certainly don’t mean to minimize this; questions of eternity are heady. The issue is that they're too massive for us to ever really know. In a world where we acknowledge the unknowableness of God, life becomes less about seeking an ultimately unknowable truth and more about doing right.

It becomes about embodying generosity and love. It become about doing justice. It becomes about sheltering the homeless and rescuing the trafficked. It becomes about baking brownies for the neighbor who is worthy of love and respect, whether he lives with his girlfriend, his boyfriend, or his parents.

It becomes far less about whether full-submersion baptism is required or if a misting of the forehead is sufficient. Whether or not liars go to hell becomes far less relevant. Are women allowed to have authority over men? No longer important. We can finally admit that attempting to discern the entire checklist by which God will justify each person at the end of the world is entirely pointless and counterproductive to making the world a more beautiful place right here and right now.

Happily, then, I'm moving towards a place where I'm unable to know. I'm unable to say with any certainty what's going to happen when I die, whether Jesus would have voted for a Democrat, or if gay marriage is such a bad thing.

Ironically, it's a place where I'm more free to live a life grounded in a faith that grows more mysterious and awesome and radically inclusive every day.